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Senior ISIS Strategist and Spokesman Is Reported Killed in Syria

The senior Islamic State strategist Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was killed in northern Syria, the group announced on Tuesday, signaling the death of one of the world's most-wanted terrorists.

In Washington, the Pentagon spokesman, Peter Cook, confirmed that an American "precision strike" near Al Bab, Syria, on Tuesday night had targeted Mr. Adnani, but could not confirm his death. "We are still assessing the results of the strike," he said in a statement.

Two American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said a United States military drone had hit a vehicle Mr. Adnani was thought to be traveling in, following a close collaboration between the Central Intelligence Agency and Special Operations forces to track him.

A founding member of the Islamic State, Mr. Adnani, a 39-year-old Syrian, was the group's chief spokesman and propagandist, running an operation that put out slickly produced videos of beheadings and massacres that shocked the world and sent a rush of recruits running to join the group in Syria.

Accounts from arrested members of the Islamic State confirmed Mr. Adnani's role as an operational leader as well. He oversaw the group's external operations division, responsible for recruiting operatives around the world and instigating or organizing them to carry out attacks that have included Paris, Brussels and Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In the context of recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State, Mr. Adnani's death would be another in a series of serious setbacks. But even as the United States has focused much of its counterterrorism operations on targeted strikes against terrorist leaders, analysts say the jury is still out on whether such strikes have been truly effective at curbing groups as a whole.

The Islamic State, in particular, has seemed built around the premise of maximum flexibility in the face of attacks.

"In isolation, Adnani's death represents the demise of an important strategic and operational leader of the Islamic State — though only one person," said Seth G. Jones, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation. "Adnani is likely replaceable, and the Islamic State will replace him as they have with other operatives that have been killed."

In an official statement, the Islamic State said Mr. Adnani had been killed while checking up on the group's military operations in Aleppo Province. In the northern part of that province, near the Turkish border, the Islamic State is currently under attack by a long list of antagonists. It is facing airstrikes from Turkey, the United States and Russia. And it is under attack on the ground from several directions, by Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Turkey; and by Kurdish-led militias that are also backed by the United States.

Mr. Adnani was prominent enough that he was frequently the subject of speculative reports about death and injury, including in January, when Iraqi officials announced that he had been critically injured in a strike in the Iraqi province of Anbar. That report was soon proved false.

But analysts said it would be highly unlikely for the Islamic State to put out false information about the death of a leader of Mr. Adnani's significance through its official channels.

His death would be a shake-up within the group's most senior ranks. Mr. Adnani has been in sights of American military and counterterrorism forces for more than two years, and the State Department put a $5 million bounty on him.

Intelligence officials in the United States and Europe, as well as arrested members of the group, say that the Islamic State's external operations unit is a distinct body inside the group, with its command-and-control structure answering to Mr. Adnani, who in turn reports only to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Mr. Adnani was being groomed to succeed Mr. Baghdadi, analysts said.

The Islamic State regularly carries out attacks on civilians and security forces in Iraq and Syria, where it still holds territory. But Mr. Adnani's unit has focused on attacks abroad. It identifies recruits, provides training, hands out cash and arranges for the delivery of weapons.

Although the unit's main focus has been Europe, external attacks directed by ISIS or those acting in its name have been even more deadly elsewhere. At least 650 people have been killed in the group's attacks on sites popular with Westerners, including in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia, according to a New York Times analysis conducted this year.

Even as the group has lost much of its territory and operatives from its high-water mark in 2014 and 2015, the kinds of attacks abroad that Mr. Adnani's division oversees have continued.

In May, Mr. Adnani declared: "Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated to the desert without a city or a land?" He offered an answer: "No, true defeat is losing the will and desire to fight."

A vital part of the group's strategy has been to inspire, and in some cases direct, opportunistic attacks against Western interests. In September 2014, Mr. Adnani made an explicit call to Muslims in the West to strike out wherever and however they could.

"We will strike you in your homeland," he warned foreign governments, calling on Muslims to kill Europeans, "especially the spiteful and filthy French." And he urged them to do it in any manner they could: "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car," he said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist propaganda.

In the year after that speech, at least two dozen plots linked to the Islamic State were documented. In some, there were no direct operational ties back to Syria, but there were clear signs that the attacker had, at the least, consumed the group's propaganda online.

"During the past decade, when it comes to both orchestrating and inciting violence in the West, no other leadership figures in jihadist groups have proven as dedicated or effective as al-Adnani," said Michael S. Smith II of Kronos Advisory, a terrorism research and analysis firm, who is writing a book on the Islamic State's external operations.

His blended roles of spokesman and terrorism director is a reflection of the Islamic State's central strategy: So much of the group's impact and innovation in the world of violent Islamist extremism came from its new brand of messaging — mixing social media reach and savvy with Hollywood-style presentations of its worst atrocities. That in turn gave the group an ability to franchise its terror and expand its reach farther than its military capacity would otherwise go.

Mr. Adnani's real name was Taha Sobhi Falaha, and he was born in the town of Binnish in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

One Binnish resident, Muhammad Najdat Haj Kadour, whose mother was a distant relative of Mr. Adnani, said the family was "super poor." Mr. Adnani's brothers had worked in the orchards of Mr. Kadour's better-off grandfather, "watering the olive trees."

Mr. Adnani was one of the few surviving, still active, founders of the ISIS precursor organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq. That group grew out of the armed Iraqi resistance to American occupation and forged an affiliation with Al Qaeda under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Back then, the Syrian government was accused of facilitating the flow of foreign fighters, Syrians and others, to Iraq to fight the Americans. Mr. Adnani was among the first foreign volunteers to fight in Iraq.

Mr. Adnani had already been arrested twice by the Syrian government when he went to fight in Iraq, according to Mr. Kadour, who is now a Syrian antigovernment activist who opposes the Islamic State.

There, Mr. Adnani is believed to have helped found Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to have spent time in the American prison at Camp Bucca — a site now seen as the crucible of the Islamic State's future leadership.

Sometime in the first year or so after the Syrian uprising began against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Mr. Kadour and several other Binnish residents recalled, Mr. Adnani reappeared in town.

Mr. Adnani and other members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, especially those with Syrian roots, were arriving in Syria to try to infiltrate the Syrian opposition. They eventually formed the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's branch in Syria.

Later, the Islamic State split off from Al Qaeda and established itself as a separate group bent on declaring its self-styled caliphate.

As it set about literal statebuilding work — making street signs telling drivers they were entering the Islamic State, and issuing tickets and tax bills in the northeastern province of Raqqa — Mr. Adnani worked to build a virtual state, to publicize the group's cause as a kind of viral phenomenon.

The videos and publications he oversaw were a great success in driving recruitment, and in opening the door to attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In that capacity, the virtual state he presided over may well outlive the physical one.

[Source: By Eric Schmitt and Anne Barnard, International New York Times, Washington, 30Aug16]

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